I've just joined a brand spanking new Ning group: Una Vita Bella - A Beautiful Life, created by Amy Kiel. Amy is a health activist for many issues, but her new group is focused on chronic pain sufferers and also the mental health issues we often face. (I suggest checking it out, it's very new so there's a lot of room to help develop it into what you might see missing in other communities on the web.)
In her welcome, Amy points out that many people with chronic pain also live with mental health issues. Sometimes the connection is (at least to us) obvious and logical - who wouldn't develop depression if every day included pain, and if yours is one of the many conditions without adequate treatment (and forget cures), well, I'd worry if you didn't get depressed. Not to mention, that depression (accute or ongoing) isn't the only issue - anxiety, anger issues, and so much more comes with the territory, and some medications we take exacerbate things further. Oy!
But, at least for some of us, can we definitively say that our pain or condition CAUSED our mental health problems? I've started reading a book, "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers" (see it on Amazon here). It discusses a theory I've heard before but hadn't explored: our bodies weren't made to withstand chronic stress. When we subject ourselves to ongoing mental stress, our bodies have to manifest it somehow. I think it's likely we all agree that mental and emotional stress has very real physical manifestations (I just blogged about my own stress-flare on WEGO), so this sounds quite logical to me. The beginning of the book uses the zebra as an example contrary to humans: the zebra experiences intense stress - such as an attacking lion - and reacts immediately with the ever-popular fight-or-flight response, including plenty of adrenaline and specific muscular and synaptic processes. Once it's gotten away, the stress is over, and the body can return to homeostasis. Humans however, have the advanced mental capability to think abstractly, which means we can imagine "what-if"; we can ponder the future. We can imagine the lion coming over the horizon while I'm at this watering hole...and therefore, we can worry.
Physiologically speaking, this ability to worry causes a similar reaction to the immediate stress of a zebra fleeing from a lion...except it never ends. We all know the old gags about stressed businessmen chugging antacids for their ulcers...but there's some scientific support for this connection. And moreover, someone once pointed out to me that we now have so many treatments for ulcers (or perhaps our bodies just adjusted to this stress manifestation), that the stress-illness has to go somewhere else...and where more logical than a system in our bodies? One that relates to sensory transmission? Yeah, that's right, the same systems that convey pain. (I suspect Miss Julia may have some technical information on this that I could never understand on my own - I'll have to check her back entries soon to see if she's touched this topic yet.)
So this brings me to my real question: which came first, my illness or my anxiety? I was actually diagnosed with anxiety when I was in first grade (yes, I mean really diagnosed, not just people saying I was anxious). I wasn't diagnosed with my chronic conditions until I was 15. But then again, I had clearly related symptoms back to age 2...but on the other hand my conditions didn't really "bloom" until I was 14 (when the sun triggered my conditions). And yet, I was diagnosed with anxiety at about age 7...but my mom has stories from my infancy about how anxious I was (even one about the nurse in the delivery room commenting on my "worried worried face"). So, was I anxiety-ridden or disease-ridden first? Can I identify when exactly each my anxiety or my health conditions truly started so as to determine which came first? If I wasn't so anxious, might my other conditions never have flared? I didn't develop such serious conditions, would I have "outgrown" my anxiety? And moreover...are all my questions only serving to increase my stress and ultimately perpetuate the cycle???
Of course, there's other background involved in the whole thing...my whole life has just been a big pile of stress - severe family disharmony, financial problems, my brother's Asperger's and its effect on my life, my parents' health problems, and so on. So goodness knows I would have been stressed even without my own medical mess. And there's a LOT of support for familial links for both the medical and emotional/mental health problems. So I don't suggest dismissing these factors or placing all blame on one factor...but I think it bears discussing.
So I pose the questions to anyone open to this discussion...did you have any mental health concerns before your medical issues appeared? To what extent? Do you have any additional information missing from my post? And most interesting to me - what long-term effects do you think stress can have on humans?